Few summer movie weekends were as momentous as June 8, 1984, when a generation of teenagers clamored to their local multiplexes for the dual opening of Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters and Joe Dante’s Gremlins — two of the decade’s most iconic films. But for the still-underground universe of New York street culture, that week was significant for the opening of another movie entirely. Released roughly one month after the campy, California-based family flick Breakin’, Beat Street introduced the American mainstream to New York’s then-decade-old hip-hop movement, set in the area in which it was birthed: the South Bronx.
Directed by Stan Lathan and produced by music legend Harry Belafonte and renowned motion picture executive David V. Picker (who was just coming off a three-film run of Steve Martin comedies with The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man With Two Brains), the movie showcased three of the essential elements of hip-hop culture — MC’ing, graffiti writing and b-boying, better known to the masses as breakdancing — while telling the story of a group of friends living in New York City during the height of the Ed Koch years. It featured appearances by some of the scene’s pioneers, including hip-hop’s founding father Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five, the Treacherous Three, freestyle legend Brenda K. Starr and, most notably, rival b-boy squads the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers, whose climactic battle scene at the old Roxy delivered all the action of the conclusions of Ghostbusters and Gremlins combined.
And, thanks to the hype that surrounded Breakin’, Beat Street was able to surf the strong wave of national media attention that hip-hop — and breakdancing in particular — was riding heading into the summer of ’84. The New York City Breakers had appeared on such mainstream network shows as The Merv Griffin Show, That’s Incredible, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and PM Magazine, and they shot a scene for John Hughes’s celebrated teen rom-com Sixteen Candles (though it failed to make the final cut). But it was with the release of Beat Street that breakdancing found an audience with Ronald Reagan, who invited the NYCB squad to perform at the 50th Presidential Inaugural Ball to usher in his second term. By the end of its theatrical run, the film had net nearly $17 million, and spawned a spinoff world tour featuring several of the artists and dancers from the film.
But while millions of kids in America were seeing Beat Street as a thumbnail guide to hip-hop culture, several of the film’s participants have a different version of the story. In that version, the combination of old-school Hollywood politics and new-school street culture collided, creating a kind of thunderclap of heated emotions. To this day, many of those involved in the film with a sour taste in their mouths. The film’s producers took Steven Hager’s gritty original script and “vanillafied” it, according to pioneering hip-hop producer Arthur Baker, while another participant in these conversations, who asked not to be named, implied that the film fell prey to Hollywood backlot racism, calling his role in the film “a dead-end credit.”
In observance of its 30th anniversary, Wondering Sound spoke with nine of Beat Street‘s principals to tell the tale of this unsung ’80s favorite that helped kick in the door for the global phenomenon of hip-hop culture.
Steven Hager: Original scriptwriter of the film formerly titled Looking for the Perfect Beat
Arthur Baker: Renowned hip-hop and freestyle producer who helmed the soundtrack to Beat Street
Michael Holman: Associate producer of Beat Street, manager of the New York City Breakers, executive producer and host of the influential but short-lived WPIX music show Graffiti Rock, and the man responsible for coining the term “hip-hop”
L.A. Sunshine: One-third of the pioneering rap trio the Treacherous Three along with Special K and Kool Moe Dee, who appear in the film.
Guy Davis: Renowned blues musician and son of black screen legends Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; played the role of Kennie
Rae Dawn Chong: Daughter of comedy great Tommy Chong; played the role of Tracy
Jon Chardiet: Played the role of Ramo
Tony “Powerful Pexster” Lopez: Member of the New York City Breakers who opens up the battle scene at the Roxy in the film
Bill “Blast” Cordero: Pioneer of graffiti culture in New York City and consultant for Beat Street
The Story Begins
Steven Hager: I moved to New York City in 1979 and got a job at Show Business magazine thanks to Jeff Peisch. Jeff became an editor at Record World along with Nelson George, who introduced me to rap music. But I was also interested in the art scene, and independently stumbled onto a show at P.S. 1 by Diego Cortez titled “New York/New Wave.” It was an epiphany for me when I realized the psychedelic ’60s was a stepping stone to hip-hop — one of the biggest early street anthems was called “Yellow Sunshine.” The psychedelic influence in graffiti is obvious, but it was also in [the names of] some of the tags of the early writers, like LSD-OM.
L.A. Sunshine: The Bronx was ravaged back then. Gangs were really prevalent at that time, there were fires every single day. I always viewed New York City as a world on its own, but a world that was split into five different worlds. You could be in New York City, but if you go to the Bronx from Manhattan it would be like night and day.
Arthur Baker: I loved the original pre-Hollywood concept. Steven Hager actually interviewed me for the Village Voice article that became the basis of the film, which I remember was to be called Looking for the Perfect Beat.
Steven Hager: It was bunch of high school kids making up their own culture. That’s [also] what happened in the 1960s. I wrote a three-page treatment for a screenplay first. I didn’t write the full script until Harry Belafonte expressed interest in the project. I got the meeting with Harry because of his assistant Alisha. She thought this might be important. Harry knew absolutely nothing about hip-hop.
Michael Holman: Harry Belafonte was new to the scene. He had been involved in a lot of street music from New York going back to the ’40s and ’50s, and I’m sure he was interested in seeing what this was about, and saw an opportunity to bring it to a wider audience.
Jon Chardiet: I had known about Harry Belafonte since I was a boy. My father was Cuban, and we used to listen to him all the time. I can remember my father singing his songs. He was such a big part of our consciousness, so working for him was huge to me.
Arthur Baker: I can’t say Harry and I really vibed music-wise [while creating the soundtrack]. At the time, I was used to getting my way and not having to answer to anyone, and Harry had his own ideas. Also, he got his son David involved too, and he hasn’t had much success making rap/ dance records.
L.A. Sunshine: The movie was derived from a screenplay that Steven Hager was writing. He began by interviewing my group, interviewing me specifically. He called me and said, “I’m doing a piece on hip-hop and I want to interview your group. I want your group to be the main part of the story.” It went from the story being about us primarily, to us being relegated to the guys behind the wall with our heads poking through a hole. It was a great experience, but I thought when the writing caught fire and got into the hands of the powers-that-be, they’d be able to take it to a grander scale.
Steven Hager: I had a two-hour interview with the Treacherous Three. They were my favorite rap group at the time, but the main character was based more off Futura 2000 than anyone else. But I mixed up all the stories from everyone I interviewed. I also took a lot from the career of Phase 2 [who served as a graffiti consultant in the film].
L.A. Sunshine: We didn’t get an opportunity to see the script until it was all done and locked in. By then, I had no reason to go ahead and read the script. I got the gist of what the story would entail.
Arthur Baker: Hip-hop was a trinity: breakdancing, graffiti and rappin’, and Steven’s original script relayed that.
Steven Hager: I was looking for someone who would do the story justice, and actually approached Jane Fonda’s production company first, but Jane passed on it. Harry was my second option based on his political views. And Harry brought in David Picker, a really class act.
Michael Holman: The way the script was changed from what Steven wrote to what it finally became was ridiculous. I’m sure Steven’s script was right on, but how it was changed was crazy. It was embarrassing, quite frankly. It should have been just about street kids in the Bronx and nothing else. Instead, you had this boring modern-dance scenario [in which Rae Dawn Chong played a choreographer for a college dance troupe looking to incorporate breakdancing into their next performance — Ed.]. I don’t even know why it was in there. You could have created a story that works solely in the Bronx and it would have been fabulous.
Steven Hager: Harry wanted some rewrites, and I didn’t agree with his take. I told him maybe he should get another writer, and I think he started working on that immediately. They reached out to a number of companies and very quickly signed a deal with Orion. Orion brought in the director, who, unfortunately for me, decided he wanted to re-write my script.
L.A. Sunshine: Of course they had to water it down…the hip-hop culture itself, they watered it down so much and made it so mainstream it was kind of unrealistic. They commercialized it, almost to a detriment. I understand why they did it, but at the same time, they didn’t get to the depth and essence of what hip-hop entailed.
Steven Hager: I got the feeling suddenly all these new people were telling me my screenplay wasn’t exciting enough because it didn’t have a central villain and was just a slice-of-life drama a la Clifford Odets. They wanted action and adventure.
Powerful Pexster: Everybody had their hand in Beat Street. It was like a bunch of junkies trying to get into Beat Street. It was all about the money; everybody trying to hustle and shit.
Jon Chardiet: Harry told me when we were filming that hip-hop was an urban art form that hadn’t been co-opted by white people. And before it got co-opted by the world and would appear on McDonald’s commercials, he wanted to show it in all of its purity. He felt the movement, the hip-hop movement, was about all of this angst after the ’70s, when you could murder somebody on the street and get away with it. Mr. Belafonte said right at the beginning that this [film] was going to be a positive force for change. [He said] they’re not fighting up in Harlem and the Bronx anymore with guns and knives. They’re having rap battles and dance battles and graffiti battles. They would go into an abandoned house, and they’d run electricity through the lamppost. The movie is a culmination of his vision. People seem to forget that Harry Belafonte — whether you agree with his politics or not — is a major figure in our culture in terms of putting his money where his mouth is consistently for black culture.
L.A. Sunshine: The hip-hop scene and the community weren’t really embraced. It wasn’t embraced as music. It wasn’t even viewed as music. Couple that with it being produced and implemented by youth, predominantly…[it was like] “What these kids up to now?”
Michael Holman: None of them really understood hip-hop or wanted to allow the real culture to come through in that film, unfortunately.
Guy Davis: I was an actor going to classes in New York City. I had an acting agent, and at the time I think I was doing a Shakespeare piece. I had to play a king and I’d grown a beard — it was the funniest thing in the world. I looked like one of these guys from Duck Dynasty. I got called to go on this audition [for Beat Street]. I ran a few lines and I got called back a few times. The last audition, we had to come in some sort of, I guess you call it ‘street garb.’ And we had to be active, up on our feet. There I was with this long-ass beard, and I was auditioning for the part of a 19-year-old. I didn’t expect to get the part, so I didn’t shave the beard.
Jon Chardiet: I met Gina Belafonte in high school, and we became pals over the years. And when we were in college, we were both part of an acting company together for about three or four years. And we did a cabaret in which I sang and danced, and Harry came up to see it. I sang “One Meatball” by Josh White and he came up to me, man, and was really complimentary to me. I first auditioned for the role of Andy B. Badd from the audition montage at the Roxy. And I went home, not thinking anything. And then Gina called me and she asked, “What did you audition for?” And I told her, and she called her dad and got me a script. So I auditioned for the part of Ramo for [original director] Andy Davis and got the part. I would not have been cast had it not been for Gina Belafonte calling up and suggesting me. They were really looking for someone who was more Latino than me. I’m Cuban, but they were looking for someone with more of a Puerto Rican background, I think. Franc Reyes, who is now a director and back then he was on Solid Gold, he auditioned for the role and was a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. But he wound up playing my best friend in the film.
Rae Dawn Chong: I was vaguely aware of hip-hop at the time. When I was hired, I was doing a few movies a year and so didn’t have my head in music, just acting work. Plus, I was living in Malibu, and the hip-hop scene didn’t reach that far then.
Guy Davis: I was not a strong fan of hip-hop at the time. I didn’t know how to break, and I didn’t know how to do that cutting and mixing that the DJs would do with the two records and the turntables. I was aware of it, and I was aware of hearing it on the radio. My friends and I were complaining sometimes that [the songs were] sampling the music of these big masters — how is it that people who don’t create the music themselves make money using other people’s music? I was stuck in that quandary. I think that comes from not truly being a hip-hopper.
L.A. Sunshine: This is my own take on Guy. I think they were trying to force feed him into a leading a role because of his lineage. That’s part of the politics of Hollywood. No disrespect to him, but I see how he got it because of his lineage.
Steven Hager: I first saw Rae Dawn in [original Beat Street director] Andrew Davis’s first film Stoney Island at a private screening arranged by Orion to pitch Andy [Davis] as director. Harry and David were there, and it was just the three of us. I had no idea who she was, and this was before I arrived at High Times and met her dad [Tommy Chong]. But I walked out telling David and Harry not to hire the director, as the film was somewhat lame, but get that girl. Of course, that comment was the kiss of death for me.
Guy Davis: I remember the first day she showed up on the set, we shot a scene that never made it into the movie. Rae Dawn came up while we were getting ready to make an entrance for the first shot of the scene, and she convinced us all to undo our pants and have them dropped down around our ankles and come in like that. None of us would have thought of that. I think she was very shrewd. She ran around the set kind of like she owned it, because in a way she did. She was a very experienced film actress compared to the rest of us.
Steven Hager: Well, I thought she was perfect. But the rest of the characters bore little resemblance to anyone from the South Bronx. Rae Dawn was perfectly cast, and no one else really fit the part in my book.
Michael Holman: I love Rae as an actress and I love her father and everything he’s done. But it was all forced, it seems. It didn’t fit; it didn’t make sense.
Rae Dawn Chong: The character was the generic “The Girl” part — not well written or thought out. Plus, it should have been Harry B.’s daughter Gina in the role, not me. That was a huge issue. I felt he was awful to me from the get-go because he wanted his kid and was too afraid to push it. I had been filming all night in L.A. finishing another feature. I jumped on the first flight out and arrived in NYC. And instead of letting me rest a bit before wardrobe fittings and production minutia, he made me immediately do a three-hour wardrobe fitting as soon as my car hit the city. I was shuttled to his house. That was how we started. He inherited me from Andrew Davis, who was fired after seven days of filming. So not only was I not his choice, I was the fired director’s choice. It was awful.
Jon Chardiet: You have to understand something about me: I never went into acting so I could play the lead. I went in so I could have a hump back, an eye patch, a hook hand and bad teeth. I was more of a character guy. I played lead, but never liked it. I always wanted to be the guy with the hook. Ramo seemed like too much. I was thinking, “Ah, this is Romeo and I don’t wanna be Romeo.” But I played it straight, and Andy Davis liked it.
Michael Holman: A lot of the artists and people involved in the film felt like [Davis] didn’t really have a real sense of what hip-hop was about, and there were some problems between him and some of the cast, and I think even Picker and Belafonte. So they ended up firing him. What was going on on-set wasn’t going with what was real hip-hop.
Rae Dawn Chong: It was a difficult shoot: a lot of painful, weird stuff between production and us, the cast.
Michael Holman: You had this production designer who didn’t know anything about hip-hop. But she was an amazing production designer for period films and costume dramas and things like that. But she knew nothing about street culture. She was staging and designing sets that were ridiculous. It had nothing to do with the reality of the culture. They had these genuine hip-hop artists in situations that were not real at all. For me, that was a real problem.
Guy Davis: Andy and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto wanted to shoot this thing like a documentary. We were going to be doing scenes in dark alleys, [and] they wanted to use reflective lighting. And as things went along Andy got fired and Tak got fired.
Jon Chardiet: We had almost wrapped the entire movie when Andy Davis was fired. And Andy Davis was fired because he was using the same techniques that would become popularized by NYPD Blue. He was using cinéma vérité techniques. I had shot all my scenes once, before he was fired, and then I had to go back and do it again. So I basically got to do everything twice.
Arthur Baker: The musicians and rappers weren’t really happy with some of the way things were portrayed. They thought the lack of drinking and smoking was unrealistic, for one thing, and that some of the portrayals and styling were corny. The rappers constantly came to me and complained like, “This shit ain’t right, Artie.”
Guy Davis: I would say Stan [Lathan, the director who took over for Andrew Davis] kind of made it maybe a little bit more fun. Andy, I don’t remember interacting a great deal with the cast. Stan found the time to interact a little bit more — to get a sense of the people, get them to laugh a little bit.
Jon Chardiet: Andy was good, but Stan was the guy. Everybody wanted to be around Stan.
Guy Davis: That first scene was shot in an abandoned building that they dragged electric cables into, lights into, and they turned it into the party set. I remember one night that there was a rat as big as a cat that ran over — I think it was the stripper woman’s — feet, and she shrieked in the middle of shooting the scene. She said, ‘That was a big effin rat!’”
The Birth of B-Boying
Michael Holman: Hip-hop is about making do with what you have and jerry-rigging things. So if you needed power, you plug an extension cord right into a light post and power a whole sound system. I’m sure it was someone who had a family member that was an electrician showed them, and the knowledge spread. A lot of people knew how to do this. And I don’t know if it was illegal, but the police would look the other way, because these parties were more or less peaceful, and people were just having a good time and staying out of trouble.
L.A. Sunshine: We definitely used the city’s electricity to begin hip-hop. Without the city’s electricity, hip-hop wouldn’t have been able to take off. We needed their juice. We’d unscrew the light bulb at the bottom of it, and we’d just plug into those lamp post outlets. Everybody did that. But the way it was depicted in the movie was somewhat extreme and again unrealistic. Were we using the lamppost for electricity? Yes. Were we using the lamppost to light an abandoned building so we could live in there? Hell no.
Powerful Pexster: We were all from the Bronx and we started this shit back in the ’70s. Then Rock Steady started going into Manhattan talking like, “The Bronx ain’t doin’ it no more” on TV. And we were all like, “What!” We had to come back. So all the crews got together to make one crew that we originally called the Floormasters. We had the best b-boys from every crew. And we just tore Rock Steady up.
Steven Hager: Funny, I guess I first “witnessed” b-boying in the Village Voice, in an article with photos by Martha Cooper. Then I found out Crazy Legs and Rock Steady hung out at P.S. 163, a block from my apartment. So I invited them over for an interview. I watched them dance on cardboard at the school yard at P.S. 163, as well as the pizza place nearby, because it had the perfect floor for spinning. Later, both my kids would end up attending P.S. 163.
Michael Holman: I actually staged and directed the battle scenes in the film. Those were my creations.
L.A. Sunshine: It was kind of mind-blowing because, back then, cats were doing it on a higher level. They took it seriously, their portion of what hip-hop was. My first take on it was, “OK, that’s something I can’t do.” I’ve always been a realist. I had a greater appreciation for it, because it’s literally something I can’t do.”
Guy Davis: I thought in terms of how much breakdancing looks almost like fighting, looks violent. Some of the moves, especially those spinning moves, they look confrontational. Even Harry Belafonte acknowledged it looked like the Brazilian martial art capoiera.
Powerful Pexster: The Roxy battle — that was a real battle, bro. We had a battle after the shoot as well. It was crazy. We had strategy. Everybody had their own moves and we all had mastered one or two moves, so when you went out we knew which guy will go out after you. We had battles down to a science.
Steven Hager: My opening was designed to mimic the opening of West Side Story, but moving north from Midtown to the South Bronx instead of west to Hell’s Kitchen. I was trying to make something gritty with great music and dance. I guess maybe perhaps the South Bronx version of Staying Alive?
Michael Holman: For the Roxy shoot, Stan Lathan asked me, “What do you suggest we do for this battle scene?” And I said to him, “Listen, these guys are adversaries in a real way. It’s not any kind of staged thing.” In other words, because these guys are truly dance adversaries, you’re gonna have one opportunity to shoot this from a bunch of different angles and then say “cut.” The battle is going to be real, and they won’t have the energy to do it all over again from another angle. They won’t feel it, and it won’t be real. In order to catch this thing one time only, you’re going to have to shoot this from multiple angles with multiple cameras at one time.” And he agreed. That’s why it cuts so well, because it was done all in one take.
Rae Dawn Chong: It was amazing and I loved being around the Rock Steady Crew, especially Crazy Legs. I was a bit in love with him, actually. I was seeing another actor from the film, but also had a big huge crush on C.L. I knew then and now what a special scene it was.
Jon Chardiet: Early on, I had a scene where I was with Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew as well as the New York City Breakers and got to see all of them do their thing. It was one of the first things I saw on set. And I saw the dancing and was like, “Oh my fucking God.” I couldn’t believe it; I was shocked. The way Mr. Wave would collapse himself, it looked like all his bones were taken out of his body. It was incredible. I was like, “What was that?”
Powerful Pexster: That’s not even the whole battle. The whole battle was like 20 or 30 minutes long. We were rippin’ em up. It was just like, forget it. And when we saw the movie we were like, “What the hell is this shit?” They should put out the uncut Battle of Beat Street. If they included that on some kind of special-edition DVD, that shit would go global.
Michael Holman: The battle between the Rock Steady Crew and the New York City Breakers was a truthful moment in the film. That was a dynamite moment and came through as real and honest.
Powerful Pexster: [Robert] Lee [Taylor] came in as a b-boy. He had his moves, but he wasn’t as good as us. He was a b-boy from his neighborhood. But he bit my suicide move; I was mad about that. In those days, when you bite a move, that’s serious stuff.
Jon Chardiet: Remember when they make Lee do the move and have him blow his move, like the little boy can’t get it? He did not want to do that. He was like, “Nah, I ain’t doing that. They’re gonna think I’m wack.” We had to explain to him that it was his character, not him. He was very serious, very proud of his work. He was a dancer. He was not an actor. He was the real deal.
Powerful Pexster: Do you see the way he goes into his neck moves from the kick? That’s the old-school way. That’s the street way. I don’t think anybody does a neck move like that to this day, going into a backspin like that.
Michael Holman: Lee was a local kid who got lucky and got into the casting of the film. He was unofficially a part of the New York City Breakers in the film and that was just an artificial thing that happened during the making of the movie.
Rae Dawn Chong: Lee was such a sweet kid; very talented and generous and ambitious. I enjoyed him.
The Joy and Danger of Graffiti
Bill Blast: When you went to a tunnel, it wasn’t fun and games all the time. You had to watch out for the cops, you had to watch out for other [graffiti] writers. One tunnel was notorious for the ball-busters that used to come down and knock some heads. You had to roll with a crew in order to go down, man. If you go to the yards, you had to be careful over there, too. Because when [the cops] started introducing dogs, it was dangerous. I would go there to the elevated [train lines], and when you’re elevated, you have to go into the cars when the train is coming by, and you’re three stories up in the air, painting a train. And this is all for the love of painting. When you’re a kid, you’re fearless like that. We knew how to walk the tracks. I think about all the stuff we went through back then, it’s amazing. I don’t think I would do anything like that now.
When I started painting, it was those big handball courts. And the rush, man, the high that I would get was incredible. Seeing the work, and then seeing how the community was so appreciative of it. It was…I mean, to this day, when I get messages on my Instagram people telling me I saved their life, I’m like, “How the hell did I save your life?” [One guy told me] that if he didn’t get into art, he would have got into something else. He was inspired to paint because of stuff I did in the ’80s. It humbles you, man. That was so cool, that made me feel so great. Like I mattered.
Jon Chardiet: Bill Blast was my mentor. He brought me the subway tunnels, he showed me his stuff. We had lunch together. I remember I went to his house and he was like, “You’re not from the projects, right?” He knew right away [laughs].
Bill Blast: I was basically kind of schooling Jon. Since he was representing the graffiti artists in the movie, I thought it was best for him to get a touch of reality, which was to go down into those tunnels and see what it was like. I took him to the schoolyard and had him paint a little bit as well. We went to Rock Steady Park. That was our testing ground. We bombed the place. I mean, all the walls in that park, we just painted over. The next day, [the producers] approached me and were like, “Hey, you don’t really have to go that far. You don’t have to take him to the tunnels and stuff like that.” But, I just basically was trying to get him to know what it was all about. My biggest regret was that I didn’t convince Harry Belafonte to let us paint [the sets] ourselves. You had people that were in the union painting, and all the graffheads and all the people out there that know graffiti, they could tell that it wasn’t the real deal. They knew that it was from the studio, that [it was] props. That was all it was. I was disappointed, because I really wanted to paint the things that I designed.
Guy Davis: That [tunnel scene] was crazy. Imagine all the power that’s on those third rails. Of course we had to shut those down and unofficially light the entire subway platform and the tunnels. We did those scenes oftentimes late at night, so we were truly dog tired. The scene where we’re spray painting the A train, it’s such a cool thing. They had the train set up in such a way that if you took the camera to one of end of it, it looked all blank. And if you took the camera to the other end of it, it looked identical in the space we were in, except it was already painted. They didn’t have to wait for us to paint it.
Bill Blast: The system was bombed. If you look back at the pictures, the grittiness of it was really dirty, dirty, dirty. Tags over tags, people going over people, just drips, drips. Sometimes when we would go out writing, we’d just want to drip over people. Make a big drippy tag and just drip over everybody. After a while, there was no more space. I did some of that, but pretty much my thing was just trying to create art. I was always trying to do a production.
Rae Dawn Chong: It was filthy and creepy and cavernous in there, but I was never scared.
Guy Davis: There was a scene, the one down the subway tracks with Spit. They had to clean that whole thing out because it was so full of grit and grime. I remember falling and cutting my hand at one point. I remember spraining my ankle, and they had to wrap my ankle to shoot that scene. [In the scene where] I had to run and fall, it was Picker who said, ‘You just want to run and simply cross one foot in front of the other as you’re running — just let the other one catch.’ And boom, on the ground I found myself. It was intense.
The Art of Rhyming
L.A. Sunshine: Kool Herc felt like a last-minute incorporation, even though he played a prominent role in the original script. But it was like, the more they got involved with hip-hop in the trenches and finding out what it really entailed, it became like, “OK, we gotta incorporate all of this stuff, but we still have to stick to our Hollywoodization of the movement.” But it was imperative that they find some space for Kool Herc. How in the world are we gonna do hip-hop without the creator of it? So they gave him that quick little line. The closer it got to Hollywood, the less it got to where Steven was at with this script.
Guy Davis: Kool Herc, he had a beard in the movie. First day of shooting, he has that beard. He decided he wanted to have more of his face [showing] after the first day of shooting, so he went home and shaved his face clean. Came in looking like a sweetie pie, and the producer almost crapped his pants. They made him wear a false beard for the rest of the movie. Kool Herc wasn’t into the so-called Hollywood circuit, so he didn’t know about this stuff.
L.A. Sunshine: If you tell lies enough times, it’s going to become the truth. And a lot of people think hip-hop started with Run DMC. What you have to factor in is that it’s very, very generational. So you can’t get mad, because to a 12-year-old and a 24-year-old, both of them are entrenched in hip-hop, but there’s different levels of what being ‘old school’ means.
Powerful Pexster: I loved Melle Mel in the film. He is one of the best rappers alive, for real. That dude was so ahead of his time. When he did that rap for Beat Street, it just took off. He was so good that everybody was just jealous of him.
Guy Davis: [In] Melle Mel, I’m looking at a professional in terms of performance; he could come out and command the crowd to do what he wanted, and do it well. I was an actor up on stage, acting the part. If I had to do it again, I would have researched much more deeply. I would have memorized the raps I did — I was mouthing it to a playback.
L.A. Sunshine: Sylvia Robinson was the go-between for the hip-hop community. At that time, there was an official breakup between [Grandmaster] Flash and Furious 5. They even had Melle Mel and the Furious 5, because Flash and the other guys, they were going through turmoil. Sylvia was still in control, but she had Melle Mel signed to a contract. And the cats that don’t know no better, they’re like, “Oh that’s Grand Master Flash.” They don’t’ even know that Flash isn’t even in the movie, because Mel is the voice, the figurehead of the group. That’s who they needed and wanted, and they got him. Funky Four [Plus One] were on the outs with their record company, and they weren’t in favor with Sylvia, so she didn’t find it in her best interest [to push them].
Guy Davis: Things you didn’t quite expect at that time in history were coming out of the mouth of a rapper. In certain ways, Mel was almost ahead of his time. Before that, [hip-hop] was about the funk and the sex, and how many women you got. But he said things that made you think for a moment.
L.A. Sunshine: [In regards to our role in the film] the producers gave some spiel about it being different. Artistically, they had a vision of it being totally different from any other performance in the movie. It would have undermined us if we were to perform a song that was [about] Santa Claus — we wouldn’t have been taken seriously as MCs. And that was a concern for us. So the only way we would be able to do it would be if we made light of it. Like, ‘We ain’t trying to perform, we’re just trying to put on a cute, fun skit basically.’ So that’s what we were doing. You’re not gonna have us in our Treacherous Three regalia.
Powerful Pexster: The Treacherous Three’s shit was crazy original. I was there when they filmed it, and I remember when Doug E. Fresh came out. I didn’t know about Doug E. Fresh at the time.
Jon Chardiet: One of my biggest memories is watching the Christmas rap. So I’m in the club scene, and I hadn’t seen the acts yet, and I come up there with Saundra Santiago, who played my girlfriend. And we were there together, as a couple, and it was unbelievable. It was so funny, I couldn’t stop laughing. I remember watching this and thinking to myself, “This is better than Shakespeare.” It’s inventive, there’s comedy. I thought they were brilliant.
Michael Holman: The Treacherous Three doing that Christmas rap was just silly to me. I was disappointed.
Steven Hager: Cold Crush refused to audition, or they could have had starring roles. I was closer to them than any other group, and got to ride around in their band van a few times.
L.A. Sunshine: The Cold Crush Brothers, I don’t know how they fell by the wayside. What I believe is, by the time cats got their fingers and their claws in the production of it, there was an inundation — they were swamped with groups that were incorporated into the production, and they didn’t need any more. There was no higher level that Cold Crush would have brought. They would have had to take somebody out and put them in their place.
Michael Holman: Harry was really disappointed that Breakin’ beat Beat Street to the market.
Arthur Baker: [Breakin'] sucked and we were all a bit bummed out when it had come out before our film.
L.A. Sunshine: Beat Street exceeded and, in a warped sense, substantiated hip-hop on a higher level. When Breakin’ came out, cats kind of turned their nose up to it. Then seeing hip-hop in its true essence via Beat Street, it was more widely accepted. Like, ‘OK, we get a better gist of what this is about.’
Guy Davis: Suddenly there were these two hip-hop movies in contention with each other. Beat Street had Orion Pictures and Harry Belafonte’s name to trade with, so I think it got treated pretty fairly, pretty squarely.
Michael Holman: I remember seeing Breakin’ and thinking it was a really horrible film. I haven’t seen it since, and I won’t. It was one of those low-budget exploitative films that didn’t have anything really important to say, made by people who didn’t have any vision or idea on how to make a film or what the subject matter was about and made the talented artists in that film look really stupid.
Jon Chardiet: Had we not fired Andy, had we finished the film and got it out there, we would have gotten the box office of both Breakin’ and Beat Street. Breakin’ did well, so they kind of stole our thunder. And the people in the business couldn’t really tell the difference between the two.
Powerful Pexster: I was like, “Yo, fuck Beat Street. Just give me my money and let me walk away.” I was just about making money, like, “When’s the next movie?” We did Sixteen Candles right after Beat Street, and they cut out our whole scene because we were too street and didn’t match the suburbs. I was disgusted with movies and these directors.
Rae Dawn Chong: I felt they promised these kids from the Bronx the moon with no way of seeing it through. I was the naysayer, saying HB and the producers were full of crap and it was lies, that they would never keep their promises. The kids kind of hated me for being so square and telling it like that. I told the truth. It hurt me, but I just shrugged it off. It hurts to be mouthy in Hollywood; actresses are better off mute.
Michael Holman: They brought in really important hip-hop artists — the New York City Breakers, Rock Steady, Treacherous Three, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, Melle Mel — but the film had this weird way of making all of them look ridiculous based on the narratives they were placed in, the costumes they were put in, the staging.
L.A. Sunshine: The problem with Beat Street‘s lack of authenticity is that most people that aren’t in the know about what a b-boy’s stance is. The b-boy’s stance was really genuine, it wasn’t over-exaggerated with your lips poked out, looking like a buffoon. It looked like you were trying to be hard as opposed to just being confident, with your arms folded. That’s what a b-boy’s stance is. What a b-boy’s stance is now is that over-exaggerated version of [the real thing]. And that’s why it gets under my skin. Somebody trying to, what they call “talk hip-hop” — back in those days instead of saying, “Yo that’s fresh,” [white people say], “Yo, that is fresh man!” Like, no bro, you don’t sound right saying fresh if you’re gonna say it like that. Or saying something’s fly, you don’t say, “That’s fly.” That’s a Caucasian’s way of speaking and articulating. I don’t think it was done that way with Beat Street for the most part. Granted, it did serve a major role and [heightened] the profile of hip-hop collectively. But it still makes me cringe when they try to incorporate that portion of it.
Rae Dawn Chong: I just hated working on that movie, and felt like I was treated badly. You try being a woman of color in film in any era. We get paid less compared to our peers — non-”other” types. It is not equal pay or respect. They even tried to mess with my per diem and I held up shooting till they got my money right. I went shopping and they sent Teamsters looking for me. It took four hours but they got my money right. The Teamsters never found me. Not fun.
Arthur Baker: As I said, it was Hollywood’s version- no smoking, drinking, sex. It could have been realer. It just lacked the real factor of Wild Style. It was more homogenized. Harry B. and David Picker were both afraid of rocking the boat.
Rae Dawn Chong: I went to see Wild Style on my first day off and died in the theater, because it was such a great film — so real, gritty and sizzlingly good. I felt our film lacked so much depth and grit. The best thing about Beat Street is the people in it.
Arthur Baker: I really had no problem with hip-hop culture getting the exposure. Unfortunately, it was “vanillafied” for the film.
Jon Chardiet: Before the year’s end, I saw breakdancing in Footloose and then in a fucking Burger King commercial. And to add insult to injury, Timothy Hutton comes out in Turk 182 where he’s essentially playing Ramo. What a piece of crap that movie was.
L.A. Sunshine: [Kool] Moe Dee and myself were having this conversation maybe a night or so ago about how hip-hop has to get old before it’s appreciated. And once it “gets old,” [Beat Street will] fall in line with all the remakes. Because, unfortunately, Hollywood has run out of material to do. So I’m sure that a remake would get called to the table, at least.
Steven Hager: Wild Style is the still best film, because it’s more honest and real. But I still wish someone would produce my [version of the Beat Street] script. And I’d like to see it stay completely true to the period.